We were warned about the Brererton report – it is still shocking

Scott Morrison warned us that we would be shocked by the Brereton report on alleged war crimes and this is one promise he has kept.

The Aussie diggers are revered figures, the epitome of the quintessential national virtue of mateship. But now we learn there is credible evidence that some 19 have cold-bloodedly murdered at least 39 unarmed Afghan prisoners, farmers and other civilians, and then conspired to cover up their crimes.

How could this happen? Well, all too easily, according to Justice Paul Brereton and his team of forensic sleuths. The Australian Defence Force, and more particularly the Special Air Services Regiment, had simply lost control.

It had fallen into a self -centred warrior culture based on status, power and competitiveness. Short cuts became common, and then rules deliberately broken. And once the law had been swept aside, it was open slather.

Perhaps the most appalling example was the practice of blooding, presumably adopted from the barbaric English pastime of fox hunting, where naïve young initiates were urged or even ordered to make their first kills to emulate their already criminalised more senior comrades.

This is the kind of primitive savagery which was supposed to be wiped out by the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, but has been constantly eroded by successive conflicts, some undeclared, and many more concealed through propaganda campaigns based on secrecy and lies.

We knew at least some of what went on in Vietnam and in Iraq where torture and atrocities were condoned, mainly by the Americans but at times with the connivance of their allies, including Australians.

It seems a kind of death wish was involved – killing was not only acceptable but celebrated, and beneath it a belief that it would be better to go out in ablaze of glory than walk away from the thrill of the slaughter.

This, of course, is the attitude that wins Victoria Crosses – there is always a large element of recklessness in the sort of courage that leads to unimaginable peril. And it is why we are so ready to forgive the occasional oversight. This is in no sense an excuse, but at least part of the explanation of how, from whichever angle you look at it, war is hell.

But this time it has gone much further and too far. The ADF chief General Angus Campbell has drawn a heavy line, apologizing to Afghans and Australians alike, promising repentance, reparation and recompense and when the investigation is completed,, retribution.

It will take more than the odd press conference to renew the once honourable reputation of our diggers – who, Campbell rightly says, are just as horrified as the rest of us at what has been revealed and the tarnishing of their prized names.

So it is to the credit of the ADF and the SAS, and to the media, the whistleblowers and all the investigators, and yes, to the politicians, that the disasters have been confronted openly and firmly, and there is a determination to deal with it. The swamp has not yet been drained, but a genuine start has been made.

And for this, at least, Australians can be justly proud.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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